Music and/as Social Identity: Ethnomusicology of the Atlantic Coasts


It is an intriguingly common concept that music “gives voice” to a culture. How might this complex transfer of value (from social group to sonic phenomena) work, as it seems to express our identity? Does the process work in the reverse direction? That is to say, does our musical behavior affect and change who we will become? In this seminar, we will examine how the activity of musical expression—what some musicologists have called “musicking”—is used dynamically, generating and maintaining social identities in many complex and ever-changing social contexts. We will specifically consider the musical cultures of what Paul Gilroy has called the “Black Atlantic,” including musical practices from Liberia, Nigeria, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Brazil, Jamaica, London, New Orleans, and New York. A powerful case-in-point is Sarah Lawrence’s own West African Percussion Ensemble, Faso Foli. Performance as part of this group is a required part of the spring semester (occasional exceptions may be granted by the instructor), and no musical experience is necessary. While these musical styles are sophisticated and the analytical approaches are challenging, prior experience with music theory is absolutely not required for this course.